Nico Casts His Net: The Story Behind the New Nico’s at Pier 38
Plus the restaurant’s role in Pier 38’s vision as a modern-day fishing village.
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Partners in Nico's. From left to right: Sean Martin, Juliana Chaize, Nico Chaize.
Photos: Linny Morris
“I first met Nico in a little café in Venice, California, where he was busy marrying my daughter,” says Jim Cook. He’s partners now with Nico Chaize, the chef and (handsome) face of Nico’s. We’re talking about the past, while standing directly above it, right above where the old Nico’s used to be, the 1,800-square-foot takeout counter that was always busy, where you had to hustle if you wanted one of the green plastic seats and wobbly tables. Chaize is across the street, very much in the present, working the hot line at his newly expanded restaurant, a gleaming 5,200 square feet. He’s gearing up for the lunch rush in which he’ll churn out 900 or more plates. Between noon and one, he’ll pull the long string of paper tickets out of the order machine, reeling them in hand over hand like a fishing line. He will think, “Oh, my God, it will never stop,” but he’ll put his head down with his four line cooks to crank out Styrofoam clamshells of furikake pan-seared ahi, beer-battered fish and chips and the catch of the day, today, an ahi tombo in a fennel cream sauce.
If Nico’s had stayed exactly the same, we would have all probably kept eating there. The 700 plates a day Chaize used to serve from his tiny takeout counter were a testament to this. Maybe 30 years from now, Nico’s would have achieved hole-in-the-wall-institution status along the lines of Ono Hawaiian Food, Helena’s, places that we love in spite of—or perhaps because of—the cramped seating, lines, scuffed linoleum and fluorescent lighting. We would have still been captive to his $10 lunch plates with fresh, local fish.
Instead, Nico’s changed. It moved. It got bigger.
Why? “There was no place to breathe, [I was] suffering every day,” Chaize says. That’s the simple answer. But to better understand how and why the new Nico’s came to be requires looking into the history of Pier 38 (where Nico’s is situated) and his partner and father-in-law, Jim Cook. Chaize’s cooking and work ethic—he’s a chef who used to rise at 4:30 in the morning to bid on fish from the auction—carried Nico’s to success, but Nico’s, both the original and the new, would never have happened without Cook.
If you’re a fisherman, you know Cook. He and Sean Martin own POP Marine and Fishing (formerly known as Pacific Ocean Producers), Hawaiian Ice, Kewalo Ice Co., Liferaft and Marine Safety Co., and six longline boats.
In his offices, Cook is dressed in a weathered Nico’s T-shirt and shorts, a crummy pair of sneakers, with wine-stained socks pulled up below his shins. The wine stains are the only indication he might be in the restaurant business. He had been redesigning the wine-on-tap system—the first in the state—at Nico’s earlier that day. (“It’s a struggle,” he says of the new system. “We have to learn how to do the mechanical side of it … I think five years from now, there will be wines on tap in every major restaurant. And I’ll sit back and say, I’m broke now, but I did that.”)
“I’d be the first to tell you, we’re not restaurateurs,” Cook says. “We’re a couple of guys who know a lot about fishing and boats, and Nico is a guy who knows something about cooking. We just came up with this concept and did it.”
The concept was a small lunch takeout counter serving fresh fish, but it was part of a larger vision, of Pier 38 as a modern-day fishing village.
Since the late ’80s, Cook and others envisioned Pier 38 as a central hub for Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry. At the time, commercial fishing boats were scattered along the waterfront and fish had to be trucked into the fish auction at Kewalo Basin. “Governor [Ben] Cayetano took an interest in the project,” Cook says. “The state built the infrastructure—the roads, designated lots.” Ten lots were built at Pier 38. The fish auction was the first to move in, in 2004, then POP Marine and Fishing. When POP’s building was under construction, Cook offered Chaize a small restaurant space inside it. For what would a village be without a place to gather around food?
The original Nico’s opened in 2004, wedged in a corner of POP. From the beginning, as now, there was a duality to the menu. There’s the fish, of course—furikake ahi and a daily changing catch of the day—but, because Nico’s also served a community of fishermen and longshoremen for whom the last thing they wanted to see was another piece of fish, the menu had (and still has) local favorites such as chicken katsu, served with a housemade katsu sauce, and a beef stew fortified with a good glug of wine during its braise.